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The 'Santa Claus Symphony,' born in Philly, that split American classical music into factions

An image of Santa Claus from a Christmas card, circa 1900.
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Archive Photos
An image of Santa Claus from a Christmas card, circa 1900.

Santa Claus is a welcome visitor to countless households around the world at this time of year. But on one Christmas Eve 170 years ago, he turned up at the heart of a more unusual special occasion — resulting in nothing less than a pitched battle over the spirit of American music. That night, the Jullien Orchestra, a glamorous aggregation of European stars and New York players assembled by the flamboyant French conductor and impresario Louis Antoine Jullien, presented the world premiere of Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony. New York City audiences demanded encore performances in four consecutive concerts, but the roots of the evening arose in Philadelphia.

At the center of the melée was William Henry Fry, a widely traveled composer and critic whose lectures on music drew sold-out crowds, and who had composed Santa Claus for the players and occasion. As for what made Fry so important that a holiday-themed piece could ignite a war of words?

“The answer to that,” musicologist Laura Moore Pruett tells WRTI, “is inextricably tied up with the history of Philadelphia.” Pruett, a professor at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, specializes in the history and reception of American concert music during the 19th century. “His youth and upbringing in that city shaped his career as a musician seeking to shape an idea of what American music was going to be in the 19th century,” Pruett says.

Fry, born in 1813, was one of five sons of William Fry, the wealthy publisher of the National Gazette and Literary Register, a Philadelphia newspaper extant from 1820 to 1841. (In 1842, the Gazette was merged into the Philadelphia Inquirer.) The young Fry demonstrated an aptitude for music as a teenage student in Maryland, and studied in Philadelphia with the influential French-born conductor and composer Leopold Meignen.

A portrait of composer and critic William Henry Fry.
public domain
A portrait of composer and critic William Henry Fry.

Fry also catered to his hometown musical cognoscenti via newsprint and ink. “In the service of his work as a music critic for the newspaper he worked for, the National Gazette, he was really shaping the musical culture of the city by reporting on what was going on,” Pruett says, “and then, as a budding composer, figuring out his work at the same time to participate in the construction of American musical identity.”

Composer Kile Smith, formerly curator of the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia (and also formerly with WRTI), views Fry as an “icebreaker” for American composers of concert music. “There were American composers, and foreign-born composers who came to America and established careers here, like Leopold Meignen and Anthony Philip Heinrich, who were doing this,” Smith says. “But he was really the first one to wrestle the symphonic literature to the ground.”

By 1845, Fry had composed numerous credible works, including two grand operas; the second, the intensely Italianate Leonora, is thought by scholars to have been the first opera by a native-born American composer to be produced for the public. In 1846, Fry moved to Paris to promote his music, and found work as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, for which he reported the latest innovations and trends.

In 1852, Fry moved to New York, where as the music critic for the Tribune he became a committed advocate for new music by American composers, not least his own. In an international debate among proponents of what would become known as “absolute music” (the non-representational symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, and their ilk) and “program music” (meant to convey a narrative or pictorial theme, as fostered by Berlioz and, eventually, Liszt and Wagner), Fry planted his flag in the latter camp.

Presented with an opportunity to write for the Juillien Orchestra, Fry turned the views he espoused into reality. He took advantage of the musicians’ uncommon skill with evocative effects and solos for specific players named in the score, including the trailblazing saxophonist Henri Wuille and the double bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini.

When the ensemble introduced Fry’s holiday-themed work, a printed synopsis by Fry ensured that no listener would fail to follow the story. In his liner notes for a Naxos recording of Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony released in 2000, Smith summarizes Fry’s extensive scenario:

A trumpet announces the Savior’s birth, and angels take up the chorus. … The brass warn of an impending snowstorm. … The soprano saxophone, in what is probably the first-ever use of the newly invented instrument in any symphonic work anywhere, plays “Rock-a-by baby.” … Out in the snowstorm, a lost traveler is depicted in a rare double bass solo.… Santa Claus enters as a high bassoon, in his horse-drawn sleigh. … Plucked strings are the toys being dropped into stockings. … Extremely high violins portray a chorus of angels singing the familiar “Adeste fideles.” … the beginning of the work reappears, as does “Adeste fideles,” and Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony closes in a hymn of praise.

“People were able to follow along with the program, and kind of follow the words with the piece of music,” Pruett explains. “It's almost more like attending a dance show or a pantomime.” She further relates the continuous storytelling to painted panoramas — a detail noted by musicologist Douglas W. Shadle, who likens Fry’s work to “the fixed quality of diorama displays and the narrative quality of panoramic paintings, both of which were popular entertainments at the time” in his authoritative, entertaining 2016 book, Orchestrating the Nation.

“The 19th century is fertile ground for that kind of experience, that kind of emotional journey,” Pruett says. “This is when the rise of the novel is happening, the revitalization of interest in Shakespeare's plays and all of the settings of those operatically, and so forth — so, the drama, the love, all of these passionate, big stories.”

Fry’s symphony, in its 26-minute span of contrasting and complementary episodes, represented his view of a new mode of composition espousing a genuinely American theme. In his words, he had created “the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity.”

Composer and critic Richard Storrs Willis
public domain
Composer and critic Richard Storrs Willis

Eminent critics of the day, steadfast in their devotion to the principles of Beethoven, saw things differently. Richard Storrs Willis, a Bostonian with his own Christmas bona fides as the composer of hymns like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” offered his opinion in the Musical World and Times, writing: “Mr. Fry’s ‘Santa Claus’ we consider a good Christmas piece, but hardly a composition to be gravely criticized like an earnest work of Art.”

In The Albion, Charles Burkhardt concurred: “We presume that the composer claims for it no higher rank than that of a piece d'occasion and as such it is exceedingly clever, rising occasionally above the standard of a mere time-serving production.”

The battle among Fry and his detractors went on for page after page over a span of weeks, drawing in John Sullivan Dwight, a prominent critic, and George Frederick Bristow, Fry’s fellow composer. Bristow gave up his position as concertmaster of the nascent New York Philharmonic following a volley of accusations of anti-American bias and German hegemony.

Eventually, the dust settled. Bristow returned to his Philharmonic post two seasons later, after the orchestra promised to play his Second Symphony, which had been commissioned by and named for Jullien. Fry’s Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony, as Shadle notes in a 2020 article for The New York Times, was taken up by the New York Philharmonic at long last for a children’s concert in 1959. The Naxos recording, which features a sprightly performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Tony Rowe, allows listeners today to assess the quality of Fry’s famous work.

So… how is it? The eminent New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg, writing in 1970 about the piece and the war of words it touched off, was unsparing. “Most of the music, one reluctantly must say, is awful,” he wrote. “So bad is it that it turns out charming: vintage Americana, reflecting an innocent and naive age, a musical Grandma Moses in 1853.”

Schonberg’s assessment seems harsh, even compared to his 19th-century forebears. To contemporary ears, Fry’s merry so-called symphony might sound more like an oversize overture or fantasia, cycling through moods and episodes without lingering long or developing its themes. The music is beautifully crafted and pleasant to hear, but doesn’t convey the rigorous musical argument the term symphony usually signifies.

“Relative to the music of its day, I think it’s earnest, sincere, and capable music,” Smith says. “It is kind of this-and-that, and that is a challenge in writing music that follows a story: it goes from here and it goes from there, and it just kind of flits. The emotions he limns aren’t that deep, and don’t grab you passionately.”

The battle over Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony, however, retains its importance in the annals of American music. Pruett cites in particular a spirit she finds in Fry’s writing about the affair. “What I find is that his writing is… I keep using the word passionate, in a way that to me really reflects an American spirit, a youthful American exuberance. And not worried about burning bridges on the way—which again, to me, is very much part of this nascent spirit of the young democracy.”

And in Santa Claus, described by Pruett as “a relatively new yet widely popular national symbol,” Fry made sure that however high-flown his aspirations for a new American classical style might be, his symphony would be a gift accessible by any listener, regardless of age or social station.

WRTI will play Fry’s Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony in the 12 p.m. hour on Monday, Dec. 18. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra recording is available on Naxos.

Steve Smith